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"My Government's legislative programme will be based upon the principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility."
That is a statement of belief, with freedom as its first principle. Hallelujah! We have not heard one of those for a very long time. The lack of any clear framework of belief or ideology was the blight of the Blair years. There was plenty of self-belief, but self-belief is not enough. Without a clear set of underlying principles, there is nothing to guide Governments when making decisions on issues that have not been anticipated or predicted.
A Government who believed in international law would not have launched in Iraq an illegal war that has cost so many lives. A Government who had a fundamental commitment to civil liberties would not have introduced identity cards or tried to introduce 90-day detention without charge or trial. A Queen's Speech sets out a programme of what is mainly law making and the repeal of laws, but it is usually events and the Government's response to events that write the history of Governments and Prime Ministers-and in this Government, no doubt, the Deputy Prime Minister as well.
The Government are made up of two parties with very different histories, different policy commitments and different basic philosophies. We are in contest with each other for the support of the voters, and we will continue to be-in by-elections, local elections, elections to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and European elections. But, we are working together in government because the voters gave no party a majority, and the country needs a strong, broadly supported and stable Government. We have been able to reach a wide-ranging agreement that combines policies from both our manifestos, and it is a considerable achievement to have done so. It is even more of an achievement to have done so in a way that sets out and puts into practice clear principles, some of them shared by both parties, some brought to the table by one party and some by the other.
Tories-if the Prime Minister will forgive me for referring to his party for a moment-have, except during the Thatcher years, traditionally tended to be suspicious of ideology and belief. However, in the Tory manifesto this time I detected an unusual assertion of some welcome principles, such as the decentralisation of power-not a principle that ever attracted Mrs Thatcher, but one that is an integral part of the coalition Government's programme. Times are changing.
"Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we to seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."
This country faces an horrific debt crisis-left to it by the previous Government. The coalition will have to take difficult, unwelcome and unpopular decisions, and it will need to test its decisions against those principles. Liberal Democrat Ministers in the coalition have a particular responsibility to see that it does so, and we Liberal Democrats below the Gangway will hold them to it, along with the whole Government.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in paying tribute to our servicemen and women for their courage, sacrifice and fighting prowess in the service of our country in Afghanistan and elsewhere. As we know only too well from events and recent history in Northern Ireland, the debt that we owe our troops can never be repaid, and we must never forget their sacrifice.
I publicly congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your re-election to the office of Speaker of this House. The crush in the House last week meant that I was unable to catch your eye on that occasion, but I know that you will continue to defend the rights of Back Benchers and smaller parties in this Parliament, and we wish you well.
I, too, congratulate the proposer and seconder of the motion on the Loyal Address, and I congratulate also the Prime Minister on his appointment. We, certainly on these Unionist Benches, wish him well personally as he embarks on the most onerous of tasks at one of the most challenging and dangerous times in our modern history.
As I look around the House, I see many new faces, but at such times we miss some of the old faces. I welcome the new Members, including those on our Benches, my hon. Friends the Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who shares the same name as the former Member for North Antrim. We are delighted by my hon. Friend's tremendous victory in that constituency, but I pay tribute to his father, the right hon. Dr Ian Paisley, who sat on these Benches for 40 years. A great parliamentarian and a great Ulsterman, he led our party through dark and difficult years in our Province and, ultimately, ensured
the victory of democracy, with Northern Ireland at relative peace today and firmly within the United Kingdom. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Peter Robinson, the former Member for Belfast, East, who served here for 31 years and whose seat on these Benches I now occupy. As our leader and First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, he continues to do vital work for Northern Ireland in securing and embedding devolution there. However, he will undoubtedly be missed in this place because of his outstanding service to his constituents and his country.
As we meet here today to debate the Gracious Speech, the "almost" election is our backdrop. The Conservatives almost won an outright majority; the Labour party almost held on or almost imploded, depending on one's perspective; the Liberal Democrats almost made an electoral breakthrough; and my own party almost held the balance of power at one stage-indeed, the minority parties almost came to form a Government with the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats.
The product of that "almost" election is altogether novel, certainly in respect of the past six or seven decades: a coalition Government. The coalition nature of the Government places an additional responsibility on them as they go about the nation's work. The decision of the people was not clear-cut; no single party manifesto was endorsed as manifestos have been previously. Like the programme for government and the original coalition agreement, the Queen's Speech is the result of negotiation and bargaining, with compromises, dilutions and sidesteps involved in the drafting.
As they introduce their legislation, I suggest that the Government show throughout a greater degree of sensitivity and flexibility to the proposals and criticisms from those of us on the Opposition Benches. I certainly suggest that more sensitivity and flexibility is required than the Prime Minister has heretofore displayed in relation to the management of his own party. If positivity is the spirit and practice adopted by the new Government, Opposition parties should respond in kind and act conscientiously in the national interest, as we in this Parliament collectively try to steer our nation through these troubled and risky times-whether the issue is the war in Afghanistan, the threat to our national security, or our economy.
When the coalition fails or its internal tensions lead to questionable compromises, Opposition parties must do more than deride-they must offer sensible alternatives. I am sure that in this new Parliament there will be a greater role for those of us from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as we seek to hold the Government to account. I hope that in the business of the House our new role will be recognised, as we were told it would be in the previous Parliament.
We have been told that the new Government are the radical, inspiring and progressive choice. In the name of era-changing, convention-challenging, radical reform, never has so much been sent to a review, referred to a committee or subjected to further examination. However, rather than tease them about the gap between rhetoric and reality, I simply emphasise the point that rather than being a means to manage the coalition's contradictions, those should be a means of addressing the individual or collective concerns of all Opposition parties in the House.
With that attitude of constructive criticism, my party welcomes the Government's making it clear that their primary duty is to our national security and the conflict in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I pay tribute to our troops, as all speakers have. When our servicemen and women come back home from the battlefront and service overseas, it is important that we in the House ensure that they are treated properly, that they are given help and support to readjust to civilian life and get into employment, that their health concerns are addressed and that their families are given care and consideration. In that regard, the strength of the role ceded to the Treasury in the original coalition Government agreement for the proposed defence review is of concern to me and my colleagues.
The urgent task of tackling the deficit will be the ultimate test of the Government and of this Parliament. During the election campaign, my party questioned the sense of reducing public expenditure in the order of £6 billion in this financial year. That concern, which has already been mentioned, was shared by the Liberal Democrats until their road to Downing street conversion. The UK economy is barely in recovery, and there is potential for further shocks, especially arising from events within the eurozone. Some point to the troubles of the Greek economy and the economies of other nations within the eurozone as portents of impending doom. However, that overlooks the fact that those countries held pre-existing levels of debt prior to the downturn, and ignores the fact that a core source of the problem is that in an act of political will a group of economies that were too divergent were squeezed into the euro project; as often happens, economics can trump political will. I am glad that in their agreement-their programme for government-the coalition Government wisely made it clear that there is no question of the United Kingdom's entering the euro, because that gives us flexibility and freedom in relation to devaluation and interest rate adjustments and the ability to respond to difficult and challenging times.
My party is convinced that there is a lack of sophistication in the Government's long-term thinking to tackle the deficit. As the Prime Minister kindly pointed out when he came to Northern Ireland, in a now infamous television broadcast with Jeremy Paxman that was aired quite a lot in Northern Ireland during the election campaign, there are significantly different levels of reliance on the public sector in regional economies across the United Kingdom. In many of these regions, there has been an inability to recover from the economic damage of the early years of the last Conservative Government, but in Northern Ireland there was the overriding factor of a terrorist campaign that included economic destruction as one of its goals. Indeed, for many years leading industrialists and businessmen in Northern Ireland were actively targeted for assassination by the Provisional IRA. Therefore, taking the same approach across all regions of the United Kingdom cannot and will not work. What is required is a plan that takes account of those variations. Make no mistake about it, we have made tremendous progress in Northern Ireland in moving towards peace and stability, but no one in this House should be in any doubt that there is a strong correlation between embedding that peace and having economic stability and prosperity as we go forward.
The Government will point to their pledge for growth balanced across the regions and all industries. However, the details on how that will be achieved-for the north-east of England, Northern Ireland, or any other region-are decidedly lacking. The policy proposals are of course always subject to the strong caveat of tackling the deficit. The cuts are clear and definite, while the proposals to expand the private sector are vague-somewhere out in the middle distance. Simply cutting the budget and public expenditure will not solve the weakness of the private sector in any region. We must ensure that policies on the economy do not entrench economic division and disparities to the detriment of the United Kingdom as a whole.
On tax policies, my party will closely examine the emergency Budget. In particular, we will assess the case for changing capital gains tax allowances and any proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system. My party is a socially conservative party-perhaps the only one left in this Chamber willing to describe itself unambiguously in those terms-and therefore our natural instincts are to support a marriage allowance. However, such a measure must take place in a policy context of supporting the traditional family unit and be the best use of resources. In any broken community, one of the fault lines is invariably broken families. In that regard, some of the discussion in the coalition Government is positive, particularly in relation to proposals on the commercialisation and sexual exploitation of children. We will watch with interest to see whether the talk of supporting families and marriage is fulfilled or whether the ingrained tendency to bow to minority interest groups wins through.
On banking reform, we welcome the part of the Gracious Speech that suggests that there will be legislation on financial services reform, learning the lessons from the financial crisis. I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, like other hon. Members who were on the doorsteps, could not have failed to be taken by the immense anger that still exists among the public at the financial sector and those in banking who brought about the economic and fiscal crisis in our country, for which all of us will now have to pay very heavily. I therefore welcome proposals to reform the banking system and to help, at long last, those who were Equitable Life savers. I hope that that help will be extended to those who saved through the Presbyterian Mutual Society in Northern Ireland, who are in a similar position and to whom the last Government promised some help and assistance. I know that when the Prime Minister was in Belfast recently, he discussed the matter with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
We will focus on the proposals on small and medium-sized enterprises and access to credit. By one official definition, 99% of all businesses in Northern Ireland are small businesses, so the importance and economic role of that sector cannot be overstated as far as we are concerned.
On crime and policing, we welcome the Government's clear announcement that they will abolish ID cards, which we believe were misconceived and worth nothing in value for money. That is a sensible and progressive step. We will examine closely the proposals for more directly elected oversight of the police. We have concerns about that and will therefore examine the details carefully as they emerge, but we will support strongly measures to give ordinary citizens greater protections in tackling
criminals and intruders, as well as new measures to tackle antisocial behaviour and the destructive culture of binge drinking.
On defence, I welcome the proposals to retain Trident. It is important and right that this country should have its own independent nuclear deterrent, and, as I said, more needs to be done to improve pay, conditions and care for our soldiers and veterans.
To describe my party's attitude to the coalition's proposals on Europe as "sceptical" would be an understatement. In the last Parliament, I had the honour of introducing a private Member's Bill calling on both the then Labour Government and the official Opposition to honour their pledges to the people of the United Kingdom when they promised that there would be a referendum and that the people of this country would have their say on whether the Lisbon treaty-or the European constitution, as it is known-should be implemented. Sadly, both major parties reneged on their promises and pledges.
I welcome the proposal in the Queen's Speech for a Bill on a referendum lock on the further transfer of powers to Brussels, but many people who have followed closely the development of the European Union and sought to bring more democracy to our proceedings will say that it is a bit late now to bring in such a lock, when most crucial powers have already been transferred. It is regrettable also that there is no clear commitment to seek the return of powers, even in cases such as the common fisheries policy in which the failure and ineptitude of current EU policies is plain for everyone to see.
The failure to seek to get powers back to the United Kingdom goes beyond the matter of national sovereignty and is to do with this place's relevance and our usefulness to the people. The end of the last Parliament was marred by public anger and disconnect with politics. Duck houses and moats could explain that public anger being triggered, but not the depth of frustration that was unleashed. I contend that that frustration was born of an inability of Government and Parliament to act on behalf of the people in areas in which the people believed they should do so. On far too many issues, when the public turn to politicians for action they are met with hand-wringing about why things cannot be done-this EU regulation or that, a judicial ruling or the fear of one, or the fact that the decision lies with some unresponsive quango. The less legislative or administrative space we have under our direct control, the less we can try to effect. The less we can effect, the less relevant we politicians are. I hope that the Government's proposals on political reform will go some way to addressing that in this Parliament.
"work constructively and co-operatively with the devolved institutions".
The devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are working well. Indeed, a meeting of the First Ministers of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland took place in Belfast just yesterday to discuss co-operation and common interest.
I also welcome the Government's support for the political institutions and stable, devolved government in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the whole House welcomes the fact that, despite challenges from several
quarters, my party's progressive, positive message of moving Northern Ireland forward, supporting the devolved institutions, and working through power sharing to provide the best means of getting prosperity and peace in Northern Ireland, was overwhelmingly endorsed in the general election. That happened despite the efforts of some to split the Unionist vote and allow even more republicans and nationalists to gain entrance to the House and take their seats in opposition to the Union that some proclaim that they support.
"My Government will support the political institutions and stable...government in Northern Ireland"
are not enough, because with the other hand the Government are pulling the financial rug from under us? Will he ask the Government to assure us that the recent devolution of policing and justice will not be undermined by the removal of any finances from it?
Mr Dodds: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question; he alludes to the devolution of policing and justice. My party brought that forward, completing the jigsaw of the devolution of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and putting the Assembly on a stable footing. He is right to point to the need to ensure that devolution of powers must be matched by devolution of resources so that we have the means and ability to move forward on the crucial issue of policing, which has bedevilled Northern Ireland for decades, and so that both sides of our community can continue to progress with that. I welcome the fact that, after many decades, nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland now support the forces of law and order, the rule of law, the British courts and the justice system in Northern Ireland. We welcome that progress. There should never have been violence-there was never an excuse for it-but the recent development is extremely welcome. However, as my hon. Friend points out, it needs to be properly resourced.
I conclude on a point that several speakers have mentioned-the 55% proposal for dissolving Parliament. I welcome the proposal for a fixed-term Parliament-it is overdue and the right decision. After listening to some Labour spokesmen, I must point out that that proposal did not get anywhere under Labour in the past 13 years, and I welcome its introduction now. However, I share the reservations of those who have spoken about the 55% threshold. It is dangerous and undermines parliamentary democracy. When the Government introduce their proposals for a fixed-term Parliament, I urge them to withdraw the 55% proposal before they tarnish their reputation within days of getting under way. They should reconsider the ill-conceived suggestion of a 55% threshold. I know that they will say that there are similar provisions in Scotland and the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, those are devolved institutions and the creations of statute; this is the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom and there should therefore be no question of introducing an undemocratic threshold, which is against every tradition-indeed, every value-of democracy. We should maintain the current position.
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